DIRECTED ENERGY WEAPONS: Can the Pentagon and Industry Deliver?

Author:Harper, Jon
 
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The Defense Department is looking to industry to help make lasers and other directed energy weapons a major part of the warfighter's toolkit. But a number of hurdles remain before the systems can be fully fielded.

Officials envision a wide range of military applications for the technology, from missile defense to electronic warfare to blowing up vehicles and aircraft.

Conceptually "it's hard to think of a mission that they couldn't be applied to," said Andrew Hunter, director of the defense-industrial initiatives group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin is leading the charge for directed energy at the Pentagon. It is his No. 2 priority behind hypersonics, according to officials.

"I would urge us to keep a lot of arrows in our quiver as we go forward figuring out how we're going to translate directed energy technologies into warfighting systems," Griffin said at a directed energy summit earlier this year. "We are going to put our money where our mouth is."

As head of R&E, Griffin oversees funding for the Missile Defense Agency, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Strategic Capabilities Office and other research-and development initiatives.

"He certainly has the ability to leverage his position and his oversight of that activity to get them to look and spend more on laser-type technologies," Hunter said. "He's got substantial ability to impact this technology area if it truly is a priority."

Griffin noted that he isn't just interested in "big lasers," but also other "flavors" of lasers, high-power microwaves and neutral particle beam weapons.

In recent earnings calls, industry leaders have cited such technology as a potential business growth area.

"There's a lot of excitement and I hear a lot of interest and a lot of expectation on the part of folks in the industry that directed energy weapons and directed energy-based systems are going to be flying on aircraft, participating in warfighting missions in the next 10 years," Hunter said.

Still, a number of technical challenges remain, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mary Miller noted at the National Defense Industrial Association's Army Science and Technology Conference.

A major hurdle for directed energy weapons development is getting them to sufficient power levels where they would be effective in combat.

The Defense Department is working toward developing a...

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